The Missing Piece of the Self-Care Movement

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What are we really seeking from Self-Care?

By Kashara Johnson

Over the last few years, our culture has cultivated self-care as a movement. The emphasis on being deliberate in taking time to care for one’s mental, physical, and emotional health is something that I’ve really loved especially since those things were not considered high priorities growing up. Carving out time for solitude is something that I’ve only started doing in the last year or so and it’s been incredibly beneficial. But as this movement has progressed, I’ve been feeling that something is missing.

“Self-care” in its popular use seems to be more of a topographical survey rather than an excavation. Oftentimes I get the feeling that we have traded “self-care” for “escapism”. We receive our doses of inspiration or quick tips on “how to live our best lives” without truly taking the time to dig below the surface. I find that our immediate problems are rarely the source. Instead, they are only symptoms of what lies below - sometimes far below - the surface. There is trauma all around us and dwelling within us. We’re in need of justice - the kind that can break down systemic barriers as well as the kind that we each can gift to ourselves. It’s called emotional justice, coined by Esther Armah, and it is an intimate revolution.

Sure it’s nice to treat ourselves with our self-care routines, but the health of our minds, spirits, and communities cannot be sustained on “feel good” moments alone. We have to dig deeper.

Emotional justice is a powerful component of self-care. While social justice generally requires a literal and figurative shouting and fighting for the external validation of our inherent value by the majority, emotional justice is the kind that can be brought about independently of others. It’s brought about through inner work and by speaking up in our communities. On a small scale, emotional justice looks like taking the steps to heal from a wrong that was never acknowledged by the offender. On a broader scale, it looks like embracing the value and power of our own voices by speaking up so that others cannot write our narratives for us. 

Our lives and futures are dependent on emotional justice. Sure it’s nice to treat ourselves with our self-care routines, but the health of our minds, spirits, and communities cannot be sustained on “feel good” moments alone. We have to dig deeper. And unlike the mainstream practice of self-care, emotional justice is for everyone - not just those who have the means and bandwidth to indulge.

In her TedTalk, Psychologist Susan David said, “Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings...Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.” And she’s right. If we’re only seeking out the good feelings while trying desperately to avoid the bad, then we’re not really living. We’re only stuck in the trap of looking for the next “happy high” as I call them. To be honest, I’ve spent so much of my life living out this narrative. Believing that burying the pain is better than speaking up. That indulging myself in buying or eating whatever I could get my hands on would make me feel better about my life. That staying mild-mannered and trying to be liked by everyone would somehow make me like myself more. But it’s just that - a narrative.

Personally, I’ve reached a place in my life where I’m ready to put down the self-help books (I do love my self-help books), and I’m ready to stop hyping myself up on motivational videos on Instagram that never really inspire me long enough to actually do the work. The change has to come from within, and I have a strong feeling that many of you are probably in this same place as well. 

While we can try to take the easier path of trying to pretend those experiences away, traumas and hurts never truly go away if left unresolved. They only reappear in other ways during our lifetimes.

Our culture is so heavily focused on vulnerability, transparency, and allowing ourselves to be seen. But what if the problem has less to do with allowing ourselves to be seen by others and more to do with granting ourselves permission to see ourselves fully? Abandonment, sexual assault, and other forms of macro and micro-traumas are all threads woven into our life stories. While we can try to take the easier path of trying to pretend those experiences away, traumas and hurts never truly go away if left unresolved. They only reappear in other ways during our lifetimes.

My own journey towards emotional justice began well before I ever knew of the term. My parents divorced when I was young and my father was tragically murdered a few years later. My childhood environment was one of constant school bullying for my dark skin and book smarts. On top of that, I lived in a complex household with a step-father that I didn’t particularly like and a chronically depressed mother who also suffered from chronic pain. By the time I left for college, I had a lot to work through. My fear of suffering in the way that my mother did pushed me towards therapy, my first step of emotional justice. The interesting thing about pain is that it makes you believe that remaining quiet will somehow make everything better. It’s a lie and perhaps a narrative that we tell ourselves so that we can skip doing the excavation. The rest of the narrative rarely spoken of is the residual guilt and shame that we force ourselves to carry in exchange for not doing the deep work. 

The walls that we’ve built around ourselves prohibit us from the real work of emotional justice, making deeper connections with others, and finding commonality with those who differ from us.

Burying pain and carrying guilt and shame leads us to build walls around ourselves. I believe the greater majority of us have them. So what does it look like when we’ve built them? It looks like presenting ourselves differently to others than who we actually are to the point of losing ourselves in the whole process. It looks like attempting to tightly control how we are perceived by others. That’s something that social media has only exacerbated. It also looks like only seeking relationships with those who are similar to us so that the real people behind our walls are less likely to be challenged to come out.

The walls that we’ve built around ourselves prohibit us from the real work of emotional justice, making deeper connections with others, and finding commonality with those who differ from us. Many of us are more lonely and dejected than we’re willing to admit. The remedy for that begins with taking the steps to empower ourselves with emotional justice. It starts with speaking up. YES, really. Speak up because what we need most when we’re in pain or have buried pain is for others to come around and lift us. Speak up because the words and stories that we put out into the world truly make an impact. We’re in need of each other’s stories and of knowing that we’re not alone.

To be honest, I don’t really have the answers to anything. I don’t think any of us do, but we sure are good at pretending like it. The more that I learn about the world, the less I feel like I know in general. But there’s something incredibly freeing about that though. It encourages me to open myself up to even more unique experiences and to never assume that there’s only one path in life. But it all begins with emotional justice, the foundation of self-care. Emotional justice gives real meaning to those things that we love to treat ourselves. We just have to be willing to dig deeper and to sift through our own stuff so that we can become even more open to the possibilities that life has to offer.